Clearly Vladimir Putin did not heed my advice to cool it after his bloodless seizure of Crimea. Instead, he has doubled down, issuing a fire-breathing speech before the Duma yesterday, filled with Russian nationalist paeans and Chekist threats. Violence in Ukraine provoked by the Russian military has become serious, and no more is this a bloodless happening. Today it is clear that the Kremlin has conquest on its mind and where this crisis goes from here is anybody’s guess but I feel safe in saying: nowhere good.
The Western response to this has been frankly modest. Moscow has publicly mocked the decidedly unpunitive sanctions announced by the United States, and the even more limited ones coming from the European Union. The U.S. Department of Defense has suspended its ties with the Russian military, and NATO is likewise cutting back on its links to Moscow, what those in the trade call “mil-to-mil” links. Are the Russians intimidated by this? On the contrary, Russian officials today mouthed threats against Estonia, a NATO member, and announced the movement of Crimean Tatars against their will, in a truly shocking reminder of Stalinist crimes.
Just how unseriously Moscow takes NATO responses was made clear in an analysis published today in Rossiyskaya Gazeta – which, to be clear, is the Kremlin’s official newspaper – by the regime-linked analyst Yevgeniy Shestakov and titled “NATO Loses Faith.” This piece is so utterly contemptuous towards the West – you will note talk of NATO “punishing” Russia by the quotes around it – that I am including it in full:
It appears that the already not very intensive cooperation between Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance is coming to its logical conclusion. The bloc’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stated that the organization is re-evaluating relations with Moscow in connection with the events in Ukraine. So, how does NATO intend to “punish” Russia?
Having repeatedly participated in ministerial meetings of the Russia-NATO Council as a journalist, I long ago came to the conclusion that, first of all, the dialogue between the bloc’s military structures and our country was primarily beneficial to the Alliance itself. And, secondly, this so-called dialogue was a smokescreen, behind which the NATO leadership consistently implemented its own plans without the slightest regard for Moscow. Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu spoke out rather eloquently about such “cooperation.” “We all talk and smile at each other, but everything continues. Joint work is not being carried out, and our concerns are not taken into consideration.”
It is easy to become convinced of the fact that Moscow’s cooperation with the bloc – which Rasmussen had announced in a sweet voice from all sources in the past – is nothing more than a demonstration of good intentions, propped up by individual second-rate programs. It is enough to take a look at the content of the “ambitious program of cooperation for 2014,” as the NATO Secretary General announced in December 2013. These were joint programs on mine-clearing in Afghanistan, the struggle against homemade explosive devices and drug trafficking in that country, and the identification of suicide bomber terrorists. At the same time, the progress remained zero on the key question –missile defense systems.
NATO’s threats to review relations with Russia are “insignificant” in nature, because there has never been anything strategic or important to Moscow in this cooperation.
With such an agenda, all of Rasmussen’s reasoning about the strategic partnership between the organization and Moscow appeared far removed from reality. And so, who will “punish” whom if the alliance rejects cooperation with Russia on Afghanistan?
Speaking about the problems that exist in relations with NATO, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was not shy in his expressions. In his opinion, “the possible expansion of the Alliance is a perpetuation of the old confrontational logic from the times of the Cold War. The events in Crimea have once again demonstrated that the bloc’s leadership has always, in every way, been guided only by its own geopolitical considerations, and does not want to hear the position of its partners. Even before, Moscow had repeatedly asked the question: Is the Russia-NATO Council necessary in its current, “smokescreen” form? Now, the answer is becoming clear: The demonstrative desire of the alliance leadership to participate in the sanction campaign against Russia makes our country’s cooperation with the bloc a useless waste of time.
And so, how is Rasmussen threatening to punish Russia for its decision to include Crimea in the complement of the Russian Federation?
I quote: “We had planned to conduct a joint operation at sea on safeguarding an American vessel on which Syrian chemical weapons would be destroyed. Now, we will guard it, but Russia will not participate in the operation.” I think that, after this statement, the Russian Defense Ministry breathed a sigh of relief. After the events in Ukraine, it really would be unseemly for the Russian military to guard an American ship. It is another matter that the operation on destruction of chemical weapons in Syria is being performed under the auspices of the UN, and the alliance is merely one of its participants. So it is unclear why Rasmussen believes that he has the right to include or exclude any countries from the operation on chemical disarmament of Damascus.
Evidently, NATO threats to review relations with Russia are “inconsequential” in nature, because there has never been anything strategic or important to Moscow in this cooperation, and nothing of the sort was ever foreseen. At the same time, the Alliance must understand that the more hostile statements it makes about Russia today, the more difficult it will be to restore relations in the future. “The people of Crimea have made their sovereign choice. And no statements can influence this choice,” Russia’s Permanent Representative to NATO Aleksandr Grushko wrote on the Russian mission’s web page in regard to Secretary General Rasmussen’s threats.
This sort of blunt, indeed contemptuously rude, language from the Kremlin indicates that we are close to a new Cold War, of Moscow’s making. Putin and his regime have no interest in conciliation with the West. They are winning in Ukraine and elsewhere, and see no need to stop while Western resistance is feeble. As I’ve explained before, NATO needs robust leadership leading to effective deterrence, without any delays. There is no time to waste.
We won the last Cold War without major combat between NATO and the Soviets. While I am confident that the West will win this struggle too, as Vladimir Putin leads his country into a dead-end that will culminate in tragedy for the Russian people, I am concerned how long we can avoid war if one side continues to gamble so recklessly and address the West with such utter contempt, scorning any cooperation that could reduce tensions, all the while crushing the liberties of people who want to be free.